Meditations

On being a judge at a food competition


cupcake

Photo credit: John Biehler (flickr)

I had the privilege of being a judge at CupcakeCamp Vancouver last week, which raised an enormous amount of money for the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre. The idea of judging is great: show up, eat cupcakes, judge them. Except that I knew better. The world of competitive judging is not one for the faint of heart (or stomach). It requires real mettle, not to mention psychological and digestive discipline.

Let me back up for one second. Come, gather around while I tell you a story.

~~~

The year was 2006. I was three months away from completing my Diplome de Patisserie at Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa, my head spinning with recipes for mousse cakes and chocolate bonbons, my fingers blistered from the previous week’s class in sugar sculptures.

I got a phone call from the student services manager, asking if I would like to be a tasting judge for the basic pastry final exam. Basic pastry is the first of three modules that students take in their quest for a Diplome de Patisserie, and it’s always a crapshoot. The number of students who don’t make it past basic pastry is pretty high, largely because it isn’t all shiny and happy like people expect it to be. And while most of the final exam cakes are passable, there is usually one (or, shudder, two) that is stomach-churningly awful.

Anyway, I said yes, then hung up the phone, ecstatic. Clearly, this meant that I wasn’t a complete moron and that the school trusted my judgment, even if I didn’t always exercise it in class.

Fast forward to the judging. I sat nervously in a room with two of the city’s top pastry chefs while waiters walked in with an endless stream of cakes on silver platters. There were three exam recipes divided between the class of 15 students. They picked pate a choux (eclairs, stacked puffs called religieuses, and swans filled with Chantilly cream), the Cassis (a blackberry mousse cake, notoriously difficult for basic pastry) and the dreaded St. Honore (named for the patron saint of pastry chefs, it’s a lovely combination of shortcrust, pate a choux, vanilla chiboust, and caramel).

I did the math. There were five students for each recipe. If I tasted one piece of each cassis mousse and St. Honore, that would be ten samples. With the pate a choux, I’d have to taste one each of an eclair, religieuse, and a swan. Times five students, that meant I’d have to taste 15 pieces, for a grand total of…25 things to eat.

Think about that for one second. Twenty-five samples. And we’re not talking about your average grocery store cake or pastry. We’re talking about sweets made from litres of whipped cream and egg yolks, ground almonds and sugar syrup. Times 25.

In the end, I had 25 small-ish bites of everything (and yes, one cassis mousse was stomach-churningly awful), and washed it all down with a bottle of wine that I shared with the student services manager, who had “borrowed” it from the restaurant attached to the school. Between the sugar crash and the wine buzz, I’m amazed that I got home in one piece.

I ended up judging a final exam every three months for the next 15 months. They moved me through the ranks until I was judging superior pastry (the last course in the diploma), in which students submit two cakes and two kinds of chocolates. Imagine that, times 15 students.

~~~

So you see, I’ve been training for years. In comparison, CupcakeCamp Vancouver was a snap. I had to resist the sample cupcakes that floated around the room for the two hours before judging, but that meant that I got to see the looks on people’s faces as they tried different ones. I think that probably saved my stomach.

In the end, I think I was saved by the fact that there weren’t that many submissions in the tasting category. I loved the coconut-mojito cupcake, but the winner wasn’t present. The prize went to the coconut cupcake, which was also lovely.

Will I do it again? Sure. Just give me a year to forget about the sugar crash that followed.

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